Few people deny that humans are releasing immense amounts of so-called “greenhouse gases” — notably, carbon dioxide — by burning fossil fuels. Nor is there dispute about the physical process by which these gases trap some of the infrared radiation (also known as “heat”) reflected into the atmosphere from the Earth’s surface, preventing this radiation from escaping into space.
The simple version of the climate change story is that increasing amounts of greenhouse gases mean that more outgoing infrared radiation is trapped, and more can be re-radiated back to the Earth’s surface, increasing its average temperature.
While very few scientists reject the notion that an Earth where heat is retained is inevitably a warmer Earth, this is where the climate change deniers part company with the scientists. The deniers argue: show us the evidence that the Earth is warming. When the scientists provide that evidence, the deniers pick holes in it.
And, when we have a rather cool summer, as was the case in Canada this year, it’s pretty easy for people to agree with the deniers. Our personal experience is that we’re cold!
Of course, the deniers’ goal is not to advance climate science, but to create enough doubt in the minds of the public to delay collective political action and thereby maintain profits of fossil-fuel-related industries, of which there are many (oil, gas, mining, plastics, fertilizers, pesticides, cars, concrete, etc.).
That being said, scientists might wish to place more emphasis on the full range of possible consequences of increased retention of infrared radiation — which is to say, less focus on warming. Global warming can seem cozy and comforting on a cold day in Canada.
Climate science needs to make clear that increasing levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases have an energy-trapping, rather than a heat-trapping function. Heat is merely one form of kinetic energy. Energy is defined as the capacity of a physical system to perform work. This work can involve melting glaciers, evaporating water and adding moisture to the atmosphere, creating waves in the ocean, or moving masses of air (i.e., wind energy).
Essentially, by burning fossil fuels, we’re creating a more energetic world. This is pretty easy to grasp, given the emphasis on using fossil fuels to move around heavy objects like cars. When chemical energy is converted to kinetic energy in an automobile, and then released as carbon dioxide, energy remains available to do work. Energy is not destroyed.
A more energetic world can move around heavy objects other than cars — such as water, rocks, and soil; or trees with roots and soil attached. A recent thunderstorm with accompanying high winds uprooted thousands of mature trees in Gatineau Park. Full-blown tornadoes and hurricanes can do even more impressive “work.” This is not necessarily beneficial work from a human perspective.
Thinking about a more energetic world as opposed to a warmer world makes one wonder if climate scientists are doing an adequate job of providing the whole picture about the consequences of increasing greenhouse gas levels. Climate just means “average weather.”
The deniers may unwittingly do us a favour if they shift our thinking away from average weather, global warming and climate change to the broader concept of a high-energy world. As humans, we’re less interested in whether average weather is changing, and more interested in high-energy events, like big winds, big rain and snow, big waves, or trees crashing down on houses and cars.
The climate scientists almost grudgingly admit that these types of high-energy events do seem to be increasing. But — perhaps like the rest of us — they’d prefer that this were not the case. These events are messy and unpredictable, harder to measure and graph than a temperature trend.
The climate scientists could be a bit more forthright in exploring just how much of the energy we’re adding to the Earth goes into moving around air masses and water as opposed to increasing surface temperature. It might advance public understanding of the risks of energy resource development if the scientist-denier debate were to shift towards the question of whether, at least in the near term, our fossil fuel habit is primarily creating a more violent world, as opposed to a warmer world.
Ole Hendrickson is a retired forest ecologist and a founding member of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.
Photo: Nomadic Lass/flickr